3rd letter from professor or research advisor?

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3rd letter from professor or research advisor?

Post by relahydro » Fri Jun 19, 2020 12:09 am

During my undergraduate career, I have had 3 research advisors. I will definitely have 2 of them write letters of recommendation for me, but I am unsure if the third letter should be from my third advisor or a professor I had for a class (assuming the letters would be equally good). Would PhD programs like to see a third research letter or a letter about academics? Would it be a red flag to have that research advisor NOT write a letter? Thanks!

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Re: 3rd letter from professor or research advisor?

Post by Nishikata » Fri Jun 19, 2020 12:37 am

Your academics is represented by your GPA/Transcript.
Your research potential is represented by the letters and publications/conferences.

Does your academics need explaining? say if you get a B or C somewhere, that will be helped by a letter from professor to soften the impact..

I don't think it is a red flag, but more like a missed opportunity if you leave out a research advisor.
He/She may know someone in the destination university and be able to testify better that you have good research potential from your experience in working in his/her lab.

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Re: 3rd letter from professor or research advisor?

Post by Mizar » Fri Jun 19, 2020 1:35 am

Many programs will allow you to submit more than three letters, so you might want to go ahead and get all 4 letters if you are confident they will all be strong. For the programs that will only accept 3 letters, assuming the third advisor was for an entirely different research experience, I would go with the research-based letter.

Speaking anecdotally here... I applied this past season to about a dozen programs, submitting 4 letters wherever they let me. For the few programs that allowed only 3 letters, the one I left out was from a post-bacc research experience because I thought the letter from a professor would be stronger. I was rejected from all of those schools and admitted to most of the programs that got all 4 letters. It seems stupidly obvious in hindsight that omitting a letter from a research experience would be a red flag, but I really believed the letter from my professor would be stronger. I don't think the programs saw it that way.

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Re: 3rd letter from professor or research advisor?

Post by geekusprimus » Fri Jun 19, 2020 11:28 am

People are hinting at it, but I'll go ahead and lay out the reasons why research mentors and advisors generally make better recommendation writers:
  • Like Nishitaka said, your GPA and your transcripts already speak to your academic record. If your only experience with a professor is as a student in his or her class, what's the letter going to say? "So-and-so is a great student and got an A in my class." That's not bad, but it's nothing that your transcript doesn't already say.
  • Along those lines, you generally have a better working relationship with professors you've done research with. In addition to being able to talk about your research skills and your accomplishments, they also know your personality and can talk about things like your willingness to learn, how easy you are (or aren't) to work with, and things like that.
  • There's a good chance that an academic recommendation is coming from a professor in a field different than the one you're interested in. Their name is less likely to carry weight with prospective advisors. I applied to five schools: four in my research advisor's primary field, and one in an adjacent field that I'd been working in with him for the last two years or so. I got into all of the schools in his primary field and rejected from the one in the adjacent field. I don't think prestige was an issue; the school that rejected me was no more prestigious than the top schools in my other field, but there was nothing on my application that made me stand out. My recommendation writers had next to no connections to that school and only a tenuous connection to my field of interest.

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